Island News

Guess who can’t handle the truth?

Written By : RAKESH KRISHNAN SIMHA* Indian Weekender. The unfortunate circumstances of Ranjeeta Sharma’s murder – she was burnt to death at the side of a lonely road in Huntly
04 Feb 2011 12:00

image Written By : RAKESH KRISHNAN SIMHA* Indian Weekender.
The unfortunate circumstances of Ranjeeta Sharma’s murder – she was burnt to death at the side of a lonely road in Huntly – led the mainstream New Zealand media to go to absurd lengths to dub it an “honour killing”.
Laced with innuendo and questionable quotes from self-styled or media-appointed ‘experts’, the reports tumbling out of the country’s leading newsrooms painted a skewed picture of Indians as scheming “bride burners” and “honour killers”.
Never mind that Ranjeeta wasn’t a bride at all, and had been married to Daniel for several years. Never mind that honour killings are not condoned by Hinduism. Never mind that the police had yet to pin down a motive for the crime. “Don’t let facts stand in the way of a good story,” seemed to be the New Zealand media’s tune.
But if these yardsticks of Kiwi journalism are applied universally, will a Wellington academic’s much reported savage attack on his ex-girlfriend – he stabbed her 216 times – brand every Pakeha New Zealander an honour killer?
What about New Zealand’s pathetic record of child abuse?
But no, when a “mainstream New Zealander” is the culprit, there is a tendency to reduce the crime to individual circumstances.
Among the key players in this campaign were, of course, the ‘experts’.
Deliberately or unwittingly, these characters gave the Kiwi media the sound bites they were looking for.
The Waikato Times, which kicked off the controversy, wrote: “But the manner in which Mrs Sharma died did not surprise Waikato Indian Cultural Society president Roy Vellara who said the name Sharma was common in North India where most honour killings were performed. It’s very rare you would see such incidents in South India.”
The suspect, Daniel, is from Fiji where honour killings have never been reported.
New Zealand Herald correspondent Lincoln Tan quoted an unnamed immigration agent, “Bride burnings have been known to be a ritual practised by some religious cults in India … “ It would be hard to find a newspaper in Botswana that would approve such unsubstantiated reporting.
Deborah Coddington of the same paper waded into the controversy and all but called for a boycott of immigration from India. “In truth, it should be called cultural barbarism, ethnic atrocity or intolerable foreign sexist slaughter,” she wrote.
However, things could pan out differently to what the Kiwi media had intended. In a statement to this writer, Vellara backtracked: “I would like to say that I have not made such a comment to the Waikato Times.
This statement was derived from the answers of many questions that the reporter asked me.” Who would have guessed!
But perhaps not wanting to hurt his New Zealand hosts, he writes, “However I do support this statement because its content is a fact.” And he adds, “It is my moral obligation to be truthful and honest to New Zealand society.”
The rot in the media comes from the top. Journalist and author Michael Field posted on Facebook that “in the Palagi world I occupy, there is a kind of secret code to dismiss those who say no to the stereotyping you complain of”.
Field added that the younger journalists who know such labelling is wrong are not empowered and people like him who protest this kind of reporting are placed “in a box labelled eccentric cynic-or old man”.
Spicing up stories has become one of the occupational hazards of the news business, with increasing pressure being applied on reporters to sensationalise the news and get those ratings up.
But demonising a crime-free, hardworking and prosperous community by dredging up every colonial stereotype will land the media nothing accept perhaps a lawsuit.
The New Zealand media has seriously blundered in seeking the opinion of community members not qualified to speak on the issue.
Worse, some of them seem to harbour some sort of agenda, depicting a grim picture of India at a time when the country is vibrant, liberal and increasingly prosperous country.
There are three reasons why this media witch hunt doesn’t help anyone. One, when the media starts its cultural stereotyping, it fails in its primary duty, which is to inform and record.
Two, it can lead to miscarriage of justice by misleading, influencing and pressuring potential jurors, judges and cops. And three, in this free-for-all the victim and the larger and real issue of domestic violence has been effectively marginalised.
Isn’t it strange that the only stories picked by the international wire services from New Zealand are about cats stuck up telephone poles? Now you know why.

*About the author: Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a features writer at a leading media house in New Zealand. He has previously worked with Businessworld, India Today and Hindustan Times,
and was news editor with the Financial Express.

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